To press for 36 demands; secret ballot held on Dec 20/21

Close to 40 years after the 20-day railway strike led by George Fernandes in 1974, a majority of the over one million rail workers seem ready to go on an all-India strike to push their long-pending demands, such as filling up vacancies, scrapping the new pension scheme, and putting a stop to outsourcing on contract basis.

Early estimates

In a strike ballot held on December 20 and 21, over 90 per cent railway workers voted in favour of a strike, according to early estimates of the ballot’s outcome.

The voting pattern in South Central Railway, North Western Railway, South Western Railway, Central Railway, Rail Coach Factory, Kapurthala; and Integral Coach Factory, Chennai, indicates strong support for the strike call with over 90 per cent voters stamping a ‘yes’, say early estimates.

The final numbers could, however, be muted, after taking into account absentee votes, sources said.

The Southern Railway declared that 87 per cent of voters supported an indefinite strike call.

The news of an indefinite strike call may prove to be another headache for the UPA Government, which faced a drubbing in the recent Assembly polls to five States, and is preparing to face general elections next year.

Over a million railway workers were supposed to vote last Friday and Saturday across the country to decide on a strike, according to the All India Railwaymen Federation (AIRF), the largest railway union. The Indian Railways is the largest employer with over 13 lakh on its rolls and moves more than 2.2 crore people and two million tonnes of cargo every day. Staff cost is the single largest expenditure head for the Railways.

For long, the AIRF has been demanding that over one lakh vacancies be filled. It has also been demanding that the Railway Ministry provide defined pension benefits to officials who joined after January 1, 2004 — just like the Home Ministry ensured a defined benefit scheme for Defence personnel and paramilitary forces, including those who joined after 2004.

The union has listed 36 demands that include more bonus, cadre restructuring, higher transport allowance, better working conditions for train-running staff and setting up the Seventh Pay Commission.

Tough call

After the voting pattern emerges, the AIRF will write to the Railway Board asking it to meet the union’s demands. Since rail strikes cause a huge disruption to the economy, a decision to go on strike is tough, which is why the union opted for a ballot.

The 1974 strike was said to have been crushed by the Indira Gandhi Government, leading to widespread victimisation and thousands losing their jobs. Since then, there have been two strike ballots, but no strikes.

(With inputs from Rajasimhan T.E. and K. Raghavendra Rao)

(This article was published on December 19, 2013)
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